There are more than a couple players being speculated about right, left and center in video, radio, Twitter and by writers all over the globe. Here’s my list of the guys someone really should be smart enough to grab at a respectable price.

Matt Duchene is a gimmie. He’s proven he can play at the highest levels as both a center and winger. If I were a team like the Ducks or the Islanders and wanted a forward who can move, pass, and score, I don’t think I’d let Sakic off the phone.

Evander Kane is among the most underrated players in the NHL this year. If the Sabres had managed to stampede into a playoff slot, that might not be the case. More even strength goals than anyone since December 3. Not powerplay goals, but five on five. That’s playing 90% or more against better teams and the top defense because he is playing with Eichel.

Jaroslav Halak is frankly abusing the AHL, a league he doesn’t belong in, and has a very strong NHL playoff record. Maybe the Saint Louis Blues should consider a second visit for him? Or perhaps the Dallas Stars or Winnipeg Jets jump on the opportunity to get him now, both need goaltending badly. Both should be free of worries about disrupting team chemistry.

Michael Del Zotto, in Episode 0005 we talk a little bit about him. I think on a team that needs a guy and can give him clear, firm, direction without screaming it, and pairing him with a consistent partner, he might just be a player who pushes a team one more round, two more wins. Maybe Edmonton is a solid destination, he can play on a team with little pressure and bring his playoff experience as an asset.

Matt Beleskey isn’t getting a lot of attention, and that’s partly due to a run of horrendous luck and iffy chemistry on ice with the Bruins this year. Realistically, he’s done everything that is asked of him. And when he hasn’t been shackled to Jimmy Hayes, or the inconsistent Ryan Spooner, he’s contributed offensively. If the Nashville Predators or Calgary Flames want a little more belligerence and physicality, they could do much worse.

Anthony Duclair had 20 goals last season on very, very few shots, only 105 in fact in the 81 games he played last year. This year he’s been banished back to the AHL. If he can be induced to shoot more, he’s got 30 goal man written all over him. Forty isn’t out of reach either. I’m not confident the Coyotes believe they can get that from him. The former New York Ranger might just find himself somewhere out east again. Maybe as an Islander playing with Tavares, or in Ottawa on a team that could use a tiny bit more scoring.

Every season there are players who because of injuries, changes in coaches, or family issues just fall off a cliff in terms of performance or their interaction with their team. The following year some players bounce back. In some cases it will take an additional year to get back to form, and some just never make it. This season there’s a handful of notable players who might just reclaim who and what they were.

Niklas Backstrm

Last year was the worst season of Backstrom’s professional career. He made it into only twenty one games. His record was a dismal 5-11-2, and the less said about his personal stats the better. Let’s not forget this is a Vezina quality net minder with a championship pedigree. What would a good season for Backstrom be? Sixteen post season wins would be great but first you have to get there. A thirty or more win regular season, and a save percentage .914 and up are more than possible with the team he has in front of him.

Loui Eriksson

The counterbalance to Tyler Seguin in a massive trade Eriksson had a 36 goal season on his resume when he arrived and managed to scrape together just ten in his first season in one of the most scrutinized hockey markets on the planet. Part of the problem was getting two concussions, one at the flying elbow of John Scott. Part of it was less minutes in a much more defensive system. This season he’s likely to be playing on the top line and the minimum Bruins fans will accept is a 25 goal 65 point season.

Mike Ribiero

An ignoble season playing for the Coyotes ended in him being bought out. It is arguable that his issues were a prime contributor to the Coyotes missing the playoffs. This season brings a news start for the 34 year old. The Nashville Predators extended him a one year contract and the opportunity to prove he can stick to irritating just his opponents.

Michael Del Zotto

Del Zotto is 24 year old USHL alumni who at the top of his game was over half a point per game. The young defenseman was sent to Nashville last season after starting his career with the Rangers. He was not retained. This year he’s on a defense that’s in flux and with more offensive upside than the Predators, and more structure than the current Rangers. A good season for Del Zotto is should see him back over the 25 point mark.

Dany Heatley

The Anaheim Ducks are the 33 year old’s fifth team. His goal production has been in decline the last few years. Part of that is undoubtedly the lack of a world class offensive minded center. Another part has been nagging injuries and the inevitability of Father Time leaning on him. With either Getzlaf or Kesler up front and Fowler and Lindholm moving the puck on the backed there’s a chance of him reversing his declining numbers. Improving on last years -18 and just 12 goals shouldn’t be too much of an issue, a 30 goal season may still be possible. Among other positive elements are getting to play with fellow former Minnesota Wild Clayton Stoner.

Last spring after being ousted from the playoffs by the Boston Bruins the New York Rangers were due for some change. They got it. A Stanley Cup winning coach was dismissed. In place of the fiery Tortorlla who’s bywords are; discipline, structure, consistency and effort is former Vancouver Canucks bench minder. It was expected that the more offensively minded players like Carl Hagelin, Rick Nash and Michael Del Zotto would (finally) flourish.

But that’s hardly the case. Del Zotto has once again found himself on the outside looking in. The Stouffville Ontario native has been punted from the lineup in a quarter of the season’s games. But why exactly? John Moore, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi each have worse on ice save percentages. Both Stralman and Moore are taking more penalties, and since none of the three is a fighter, the penalties are very comparable. No other Rangers blueliner is as likely to finish a shift in the offensive zone as Del Zotto either.

The New York Rangers are 25th in goals for heading into action on December 3rd. That’s a full ten places below where they finished last season (where MDZ played most games). They are producing at about half a goal per game below the number they put together in last years campaign. It could be just a coincidence that Del Zotto an offensive defenseman selected in the first round is regressing under an offensive minded coach.

More likely it has something to do with going from playing 23 minutes a night over the last two seasons to an anemic 18 this season. Where the time has come from is also revelatory. Under Tortorella Del Zotto played a respectable if not staggering 1:23 of shorthanded time on ice a game for each of the previous two seasons. On the other special team he an average of over 3 minutes a night. Now, he’s down to eight seconds a night of penalty kill time and just 2:30 per game of powerplay time.

It is pretty common for fans to scapegoat a player. sometimes fairly, others not. The media does it and no one who pays attention takes it too seriously. But when coaches do it, especially inaccurately, that’s something else entirely. Reading the future in goat entrails is just as easy and accurate as trying to forecast Alain Vigneault’s moves. Even working backwards with the facts to arrive at the current coach’s motivation is difficult.

In this case we have an offensive minded defenseman who’s finishing more shifts in the offensive zone than any other defenseman. While not known for his defense consistent use on the penalty kill under another coach does tend to indicate a player has some ability at a given task, and two seasons back the team’s penalty kill was better than this year’s edition. The powerplay which has improved under Vigneault is given a boost in opportunities when Del Zotto is in the lineup as only Falk draws more penalties among the Rangers defensemen.

So what gives? Has Del Zotto regressed to the level where he’s a  6th or 7th defensemen or is someone ignoring the facts?

Someone needs to explain to several NHL general managers the concept of not letting others set the value of your commodities. Set the price and move on. If you have a good player lock them up as soon as possible and then move on. You’ll be setting the bar for others, not the other way around.

For example, Alex Semin who has averaged 24.5 goals a year in the last two seasons just signed a one year deal, for seven million. After having his production tail off after a six million dollar deal the year before. His 21 goals this last season put him 85th in the NHL in goals scored. It did put him in the same neighborhood as Jeff Carter who only played 55 games and David Perron who played 57. Their contracts have hits of not quite four million and just a smidge over five and a quarter. But hey, they have long deals surely security is worth them being paid half or two thirds of Semin’s total next year right?

On to the RFAs:

  • P.K. Subban, assuming you aren’t a Bruins fan the biggest complaint I’ve heard about him in his career is “he practices too hard”. Oh gosh, that is just horrible. Nothing can fix an attitude like that. Even if you are a Bruins or Leafs fan, he’s a top 5% among defensemen talent. Of the 297 defensemen to skate in the NHL last year, he was 14th in total ice time right behind Zdeno Chara.  He’s almost certainly got the best possible combination of talent and drive of any skater on the team. The Canadiens cannot afford not to have him on their roster. Leaving aside Kaberle who plays no shorthanded time and more powerplay time, none of their other defensemen came even close to producing as many points as Subban. Weber and Gorges combined had less points.
  • Michael Del Zotto while the Rangers arguably have the talent to absorb his loss, why would they want to? More than four minutes a night of powerplay time, and led all their defenseman by nine points from the man advantage, plus he was good enough to earn three times as much penalty kill time per night as Erik Karlsson under John Tortorella who may just be the only coach in the NHL who could be led to say “the trap is dangerously offensive minded”? Year over year his ice time climbed two minutes over the previous season, with his shorthanded time tripling. If that is a guy you can afford to lose or let the price get set too high, you might be doing things wrong.
  • John Carlson had as many points at the All Star break as Lidstrom. He had a better claim to the All Star spot than Wideman, especially from a team marketing point of view. And yet today, with the summer half over the teams 22 year old number one defenseman sits home without a contract. There really isn’t an excuse for this. Mike Green can be made into one, but he average less TIO, has not been healthy in his career three seasons, and it is not a good comparable on the ice. Carlson plays in all situations, and is improving daily. Risking him backsliding because a deal couldn’t be reached before camp is just absurd.

John Tortorella has made this a fun post season. Not only is he doing his job and helping his team win, he’s adjusting and not throwing his players under the bus. Muckrakers hate that last bit. He’s flat out refused to discuss any single player and stuck to very simple true answers.

The muckrakers hate that too. Either an answer ignores the question or faces it. Ignoring a question (even a moronic one) would actually be rude. Answering it, on the other hand is about all media members should expect from anyone. The only people in a sports organization paid to make nice with the media are the PR guys (whatever their title) not the players, not the coaches, no one cares what the equipment managers think, and even the general managers have a fair amount of room to be themselves.

But make no mistake about it, Tortorella is drawing on his Masshole roots and applying shoe leather with malice aforethought. No one is breaking down the teams style of play and calling it boring. Gaborik who can’t seem to defend the puck from the newest member of a brownie troop hasn’t grabbed a single deadline. Ryan Callahan and Michael Del Zotto both being minus players in the series even though they had a three to zero win in game one hasn’t been mentioned. No one’s asked once if having Sean Avery around to potentially get in the head of Martin Brodeur might not help open the series up. Brandon Dubinsky? Who’s he?

Its shameful that the entitlement media can’t find a single story to work. Tortorella not being loquacious is about as Bettman being booed in any arena he steps in. The whiners should pop the pacifiers back in their mouths and at least pretend to be professionals and find something else to write about.

The Western Conference has already kicked off it’s final round, and done so in style. The East has its time in the limelight now.

The Rangers and Devils will at least from the perspective of travel both get to play as many home games as it takes to finish the series. That rest could come into play for both teams. The Rangers while a much younger team overall, have had several overtime games including that triple overtime game against the large and physical Capitals. The Devils.

The Devils have the advantages of two less games, notably less overtime, and more rest since the end of a not very taxing series with the Flyers. They may need it. They have a much higher average age, but also have their own rookies in the lineup. In addition to a legend in goal who is playing some of his best hockey in a decade, they have the most skilled player left in the playoffs Ilya Kovalchuk.

The breakdown:

Goaltending:

  • Lundqvist is having hands-down the best post season of his career, one concern might be that the Devils take more shots per game than anyone the Rangers have faced, and part of his success is that the Rangers typically allow very few shots.
  • Brodeur looks more like the legend than we’ve seen in recent years. This could be a tipping point either way. If he reverts to the player of the last two or three post seasons that will be the death-knell for the team. If however he has two strong games to start the series he will be in the head of a team who mostly grew up watching him.

Forwards:

  • The Rangers forwards have been enough to get the job done, but not spectacular. How well they do will be determined by how well Gaborik and Hagelin use their speed, and players like Callahan and Stepan distribute the puck in a timely manner.
  • Kovalchuk, Parise, Zajac need to push through a much better defense than they have seen this post season. I expect the adjustment to be harder for Clarkson and Henrique, which means it’s just about time for Ponikarovsky to come out of his coma and contribute.

Defense:

  • The Rangers defense is the most reliable component of the team. McDonagh and Girardi have been huge, Staal has rounded back into Norris-like form, and Del Zotto has been key figure, as a six man unit a defense doesn’t play much better. The question will be how well they handle some of the big, skilled, bodies of the Devils in a seven game series after all the hard play of the Caps, and extra time.
  • The Devils defense has seen its defensive defensemen earning the most ice time. It’s a formula that’s worked thus far. The Devils will need timely contributions from the more offensive minded defensemen in order to advance.

Intangibles:

Neither team has had to come back from being down 0-3 or run into a game they had to come back from four goal down to win or golf. But neither has had an easy post season, the Devils went the distance with the scrappy Panthers in the opening round, the Rangers will play their fifteenth game of the second season against the Devils. After health which becomes a huge drain this late, depth is going to be huge in deciding the series. Both teams have five players who have scored three or more goals in the post season. The Devils however who have played less games have gotten at least one goal from 15 players, while the the Rangers have had only 11 light the lamp.

These division rivals could also see the return of good scraps to the playoffs. 22 Fighting majors in six regular season games isn’t the type of emotion you can smother in the playoffs.

“Lazy Russian Count”*

  • Rangers: 1
  • Devils: 2

“Good Canadian Boy Count”*

  • Rangers: 10
  • Devils: 7

*Both counts taken from current rosters as displayed on team websites.

The Eastern Conference is clearly the stronger of the two this season, and with five teams that have a legitimate shot at the Conference Finals if they stay healthy, one hellacious dog fight is brewing.

1: New York Rangers vs  #8 Washington Capitals

Two weeks ago if you had to project this matchup you’d have called it a stomping by the Rangers and moved on. Today, with the Rangers on a two game losing streak, you have one cause for concern. The Washington Capitals under one of the winningest coaches in OHL history are starting to play both resiliently and happily. Just as a rule of thumb, when Alex Ovechkin has a grin on his face half the night, the opponents are in trouble. It’s unlikely this would be a four game series, and it likely takes six, defense being the biggest difference. The Rangers have a more talented blueline with Girardi leading the way, backed by Del Zotto, McDonagh, and the still recovering Staal they have a level of defensive talent few teams will match. Rangers in 6.

2: Boston Bruins vs #7 Ottawa Senators

This has always been the most respectful rivalry in the Northeast  Division. Most fans of both teams will at least admit the others are human, and the other team isn’t composed entirely of goons and divers. That’s so boring. Fortunately with accidental kneeing my Adam McQuaid early in the year, the Senator climb up the standings, and Chris Neil being Chris Neil, the teams are getting a little tetchy at each other. Ben Bishop being brought in becomes the X factor having won his first two games as a member of the Senators, and playing a very different game from the injured Anderson or journeyman Auld. He could prove an equalizer, or not. On the year the Senators one win was a 1-0 affair, the other four game Boston won and outscored them 19-11.  Boston in 5

3: Florida Panthers vs #6 New Jersey Devils

The Panthers may get home ice, but the Devils are the better team. As long as Broduer plays well and Kovalchuk is healthy they have a good shot at beating anyone. The Panthers are hoping to get and stay healthy soon, their list of injuries has been as long as their summer free agent shopping spree. Broduer’s GAA has dropped each of the last three months, his Sv% has risen, right now he far more resembles the game changer of five years ago than anytime in the past three seasons. Also among the rejuvenated is Brian Campbell of the Panthers, the slick skating, smooth passing defenseman has eclipsed his points total for his last two seasons with the BlackHawks rather easily. The season series was split two to two with each winning and losing a one and a two goal game. Devils in 7

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #5 Philadelphia Flyers

The Keystone State would get to see one of the best first round matchups of the year. Of all the potential parings this is the most likely to happen. Even with home ice advantage the Penguins would enjoy only a slim advantage as the Flyers have had an exceptional road year. Injuries and who is not on the ice are the story of this series. With nearly a full roster in the shop between the teams, it could make for some very ugly hockey. The defense of the Flyers was suspect with Meszaros and Timonen, without them it could be ugly. Both goalies have warmed up of late. While Malkin is more than a handful, he’s been off the ridiculous pace he set for so many weeks. Penguins in 6

The roar of battle shall flow like the mightiest of rivers.

The crys of the stricken shall haunt your nightmares until your last.

The glory won shall never tarnish.

He who falls he shall be forever forgotten.

It is after all game #699 of the NHL season. No game could be more important, no game has ever been more important. At least not until the next big matchup.

For today though we get to see the Bruins take on an upgraded version of one of the few teams to win their season series with them last year. The Rangers will get a true test of who they are, the Bruins play a style very similar to their own, and know how to win in a number of ways. There are players on the Rangers who have been to the promised land, but the team as a unit has not.

On paper there matchup couldn’t get much tighter. The two have almost identical goals allowed figures.  Each team wins more faceoffs than they lose. Their penalty kills are separated by just half a point. The top point producer for each squad is a speedy right winger, Gaborik for the Rangers and Seguin for the Bruins. Each team has a defenseman with points in the twenties, Del Zotto the rising star of the Blue Shirts, and Chara Norris winner, All Star Captain and biggest of the Bruins.  Looking at the comparative powerplays might imply more separation as Bruins boast a 4.6% better man advantage, but the Rangers take slightly less penalties. The biggest point of separation between the two is total offense where the Bruins lead the league and are out producing the Rangers by 3/4ths of a goal per game. With goaltending as good these two teams have, expect no more than a two goal game.

The Bruins have hit a patch of schedule that has left them playing poorly for long stretches of games, but have still won most of those games. The Rangers are coming in off a loss. Neither team can afford to let up off the throttle. At the end of the game the winner will be able to walk out of the building saying not only that they won, but that they beat the other team that has been at the top of the conference most of the season.

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.

Players:

  • that Blake Wheeler would get his first goal on November 17th, and still have as many points as Eric Staal
  • Teemu Selanne would still lead his team in points, and have his lead over the big three start at five points and grow from there
  • forty-four NHL defensemen would enter play on November 19th with as many points or more than former two time 40+ goal man Eric Staal
  • There would be a rash of goalie injuries for the New York Islanders that left Rick Dipietro as the last man standing
  • Fabian Brunnstrom would have played more NHL games on the season than Marc Staal or Sidney Crosby
  • Kris Versteeg would lead Stamkos, Toews, and Spezza in the scoring race and be outside the top 10
  • Michael Del Zotto would be third in TOI/G, 2nd in +/-, and 2nd in PPTOI/G for the New York Rangers after spending much of last season a healthy scratch or in the AHL
  • that serious Vezina Trophy discussions would have to include Elliot, Khabibulin, and Enroth

Teams:

  • the Ottawa Senators could have negative seven goals differential, not have any of their top five scorers be a plus player, a goals against average of 3.37 (27th) and still be in a playoff position
  • only two teams the Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings would have not appeared in a shootout as of 11/19 and neither would be in playoff position
  • the Chicago Blackhawks would lead the NHL in points, and be 18th in goals against
  • the NHL’s worst penalty kill would belong to the San Jose Sharks
  • the Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes would all have losing records when scoring first.
  • the NHL’s black-hats the Boston Bruins would not be among the five most penalized teams

…would you have believe a word of it?